Tu Bi'Shevat / Sh'mita Year - On the Spiritual Benefits of Rest and Renewal

By Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch / Hevreh of Southern Berkshire

This Tu B'Shevat 5782 could possibly be boring. After all, 5782 is a sh'mita year, the seventh year in our cycle of calendaring. This year Jewish gardeners are prohibited from sowing seeds and pruning trees. And so, celebrating this holiday this year has to be a little different.

For us hearty New Englanders, celebrating Tu B'Shevat can be exclusively an academic exercise anyway. Who among us will plant trees when the ground is still frozen? But the Jewish Arbor Day is still observed around the world. During a typical year in Israel, the Jewish National Fund makes a big push for tree planting around Tu B'Shevat. However, the JNF also takes the sh'mita year as a chance to quiet their regular efforts. During this sh'mita year, JNF does not plant any new trees. They take the time to cultivate the trees already under their care. In our own practice for a sh'mita Tu B'Shevat, any fruit we enjoy as part of the seder should come from fruit picked from ownerless trees from which anyone can take.

Given all of this, Tu B'Shevat 5782 is not sounding like much fun.

Still, the confluence of sh'mita and the holiday can be meaningful. Sh'mita is about stopping, like Shabbat. After six years of vigorous growing cycles, we let everything go still. While we remain still, our trees and fields do continue to grow. And this difference between us and our land is an invitation to reflect.

Looking at the meaning of sh'mita and its connection to Shabbat, Rav Abraham Kook writes, "What Shabbat does for the individual, sh'mita does for the nation as a whole. The Jewish people, in whom the godly, creative force is planted eternally and distinctively, have a special need to periodically reveal the divine light within itself with full intensity. Our mundane lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger, and competition, do not entirely suffocate this creative force. On the sh'mita, our pure, inner spirit may be revealed as it truly is" (Shabbat HaAretz). Our orientation is to be toward God, and in our everyday lives, and it can be so easy to turn away from that. Just as Shabbat allows us to reset our spiritual clocks, the sh'mita permits us to stop what needs to be stopped, emphasizing the spiritual benefits of rest and renewal.

During a sh'mita Tu B'Shevat, we spiritual observers arrive at a crossroads for consideration. In a year of rest, we notice how nature around us continues to grow. We resist the urge to rush off and plant, cultivate, strive, and control. The trees during a sh'mita Tu B'Shevat tell us that growth continues to happen without us forcing it. Life continues to happen, whether we try to master it or not.

In this reflection, a relevant message emerges: We do not have to strive all the time. In fact, not making an effort can be a better, healthier option. In one of the many articles published wrestling with the outcomes of the pandemic, I recently read the phrase, "We need mass vacations as much as we need mass vaccinations." The pandemic has been a grand mal, communal trauma. The pandemic upended the ways we lived prior. And now, in this next chapter, I, for one, want to get back to life as it was. I want to be out in my garden, sowing, striving, helping cultivate growth. But we are not there yet. We need time to assess our world and where we fit into it. We need time not to go back but to figure out what we want now and for our future. Sh'mita can be our Jewish mass vacation. And at this Tu B'Shevat, we are called to name how we will reorient ourselves to a growth that is easy, natural, and as it should be. This season, we are invited to assess and articulate our here and now and where we want to go. In so doing, we may find that we – as Jewish gardeners of soulful living – do so in a healthier, more balanced frame.

Is this holiday boring? Far from it.

Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch is a rabbi at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington.